Although Malaena Toohey studied health promotion in college, she never really planned to make a high-profile career for herself. Yet she became a community advocate on the forefront of one of Tooele County’s biggest challenges—the obesity epidemic.
Toohey, a part-time health educator who heads the Live Fit Tooele County coalition, believes the battle of the bulge is winnable, daunting though it may be, so long as residents are willing to take one small step after another toward necessary lifestyle changes.
In the past year, she has assembled a diverse coalition of community volunteers and local health officials, launched a new website, created and promoted several health-related competitions—the largest of which attracted 600 local participants—for youths and adults alike, hosted a documentary’s premier, and drew nearly 1,000 county residents to a health fair.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes, Toohey and her coalition work continuously with local businesses and government leaders to make the Tooele County environment a little healthier for future generations.
Her efforts have not gone without notice. In July, Toohey was named a “Friend of Public Health” by the Utah Association of Local Boards of Health. She was the only person to receive such an honor last year.
And now six months later, on account of Toohey’s efforts to make fitness and nutrition more accessible to the community, the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin has selected her as its “2013 Tooele County Person of the Year.”
Undaunted, ambitious, and eager
Toohey was never appointed to her current position as chairperson of the Live Fit coalition per se. When the Tooele County Health Department hired her away from a health department in Summit County in 2011, there was no Live Fit coalition. She worked with the department promoting awareness of various other health concerns until, in 2012, Live Fit began to grow out of the health department’s other initiatives.
After the department began work on its community health improvement plan, Toohey was asked to raise awareness of Tooele’s struggle with obesity—Tooele County leads Utah for its rates of both adult and teenage obesity. But it quickly became evident that Toohey had a much broader vision for the county, said Eileen DeLeeuw, a current member of the coalition.
Almost immediately, Toohey had “innumerable barriers thrown up in front of her,” DeLeeuw recalled. Without substantial funding, or even a single full-time staff member, there was little hope that Toohey would be able to accomplish all she set out to do with Live Fit.
“At first, there were even a few people who told her to calm down and not try to do so much,” DeLeeuw said.
To those who knew her, though, it was no surprise that Toohey persevered to see the Live Fit coalition’s first year of official operation in 2013. Toohey is more than a dedicated professional, DeLeeuw said—she was a member of the community who could see local needs, and who had made improving local health a personal quest.
“She has this very professional side, but she also has this maternal side,” said DeLeeuw. “It’s this: I want my kids to have more exercise opportunities; I want my kids to have access to better food.”
Toohey has fought the battle of the bulge on the homefront. Her parents struggled with obesity for years, and she was overweight for a time as a child.
“I’ve always had to manage my weight—it’s not something that has come easily to me,” she said. “I’ve never been severely overweight, but I have had to keep up on it. It takes a lot of self-discipline, but I’ve made fitness an important part of my life because of what it does for me.”
According to Toohey, a desire to extend those same benefits of good health and self-discipline to her entire community is what drives her efforts with Live Fit.
“I just have a passion for it,” she said. “I want to empower my community.”
Her ties to Tooele—Toohey grew up in Tooele, left for college, and returned three years before beginning work here—were part of what made her an attractive candidate when she initially applied to work at the Tooele County Health Department, said Jeff Coombs, the health department’s deputy director.
“Employees who are residents tend to be more vested in the community,” he said.
The health department has been pleased by Toohey’s performance, said Coombs, who characterized Toohey as a dedicated, passionate worker who practices what she preaches and has a special knack for implementing ideas others might just talk about.
Creates work-life balance
Toohey agreed that taking action, rather than just talking about a problem, is a fundamental part of her personality.
“I like to be busy and work hard,” she said.
In addition to heading Live Fit, Toohey continues to see to other responsibilities as a health educator for the Tooele County Health Department, such as raising awareness about proper car seat use and tobacco prevention. When she runs out of time at the office, she takes her work home and “puts in a lot of volunteer hours,” she said.
She and her husband, who is self-employed, have a seven-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son at home, which can make working and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for herself and her family a difficult balancing act, Toohey said.
When things get especially tricky, she multitasks and looks for ways to incorporate fitness into her everyday routine—walking her daughter to and from school to supplement her own daily exercise, for example, and bringing her son with her to Live Fit sponsored activities.
“Something that has been really difficult [in the past]—when the winter hits, there just aren’t any resources,” Toohey said. Live Fit’s recent efforts to sponsor indoor active play for local preschoolers—which have in recent months attracted as many as 82 toddlers and their parents—“have been amazing as a parent. So far, we haven’t had any winter blues.”
A team leader
Toohey also relies heavily on volunteer members of the coalition, who she said have been instrumental in organizing and staffing events.
Her ability to work with a group to accomplish a common goal is part of what makes her personal style of leadership so effective, said DeLeeuw. What makes the coalition so effective, she said, is that Toohey found the right people, and then listened to them.
“She’s inclusive, and she counsels with people,” said DeLeeuw. “She tries to listen to everyone before making a decision. But, she does not let the group slow her down.”
Her emphasis on reaching out and building connections between the coalition and other community leaders is an important part of the equation that has made Toohey’s efforts successful, DeLeeuw added. Outreach efforts brought in 700 attendees to Live Fit’s first health fair last May—an outcome that went against everything DeLeeuw expected.
“My experience has been that Tooele County residents don’t come out to health fairs,” she said, “but the attendance and the support there was phenomenal.”
However, DeLeeuw, who has worked with at least a dozen health coalitions in the past in her effort to promote diabetes awareness and prevention, was frank about Live Fit’s potential for continued success.
“I’ve been on 12 plus coalitions related to health,” she said. “The longest any of them lasted is three years. My personal opinion is that can’t happen to Live Fit. It’s too important to the community.”
It will be up to Toohey, DeLeeuw said, to make the coalition a staple of the community and to provide it with a steady, sustainable stream of support from local businesses.
Ready to make change
Toohey, who already has plans in the works for the coalition’s continued expansion this year, shows no signs of quitting. In addition to maintaining the initiatives the coalition already has in place—including three new fitness programs set to launch this week—Toohey hopes to arrange new programs to make produce more available within the community.
As with past projects, where Live Fit has compensated for a lack of time and funding by tapping local resources, Toohey hopes to work with local growers to bring residents food directly from the source via some sort of farmer’s market setting. And thanks to a grant Live Fit received last year, the coalition already has a device that can accept food stamps and other benefits, which Toohey believes will make this conceptual market more appealing and accessible to low-income residents.
It’s an ambitious project, especially in light of the fact that Toohey has yet to reach any local grower—hobbyist or otherwise—who seems interested in participating. But Toohey believes that it is possible to change local attitudes with perseverance.
“This is why I’m here. I can make change,” she said. “I want to make change, and I can make change, for this community.”